There was nothing that looked quite like Sin City when it hit theatres in 2005. The angular black-and-whites and pulpy subject matter of Frank Miller’s neo-noir comics were a perfect match for over-the-top aesthetic of Robert Rodriguez’s brand of home-brewed filmmaking. Together they heaped hard-boiled narration and gratuitous violence over strikingly stylized images that consciously recalled comic book panels in a way that no other mainstream movies had ever attempted.
Nine years later, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For tries to fit in with an entirely new generation of comic book movies. Another omnibus of stories from the seedy underworld of Basin City, the film serves as both sequel and prequel to its predecessor. And while it certainly still looks different than your typical Marvel or DC movie, the appeal to novelty is gone. This Sin City feels more like a copy of itself than its actual copies. That’s not entirely a bad thing – some of the characters, particularly Mickey Rourke’s square-headed brawler Marv, are worth revisiting – but it leaves the audience feeling caught in a dark downward spiral of the same type that consumes the film’s various criminals, call girls, and rogues.
That’s even more appropriate considering that A Dame to Kill For is clearly more interested in establishing its moody, noir-ish atmosphere than in defining a coherent timeline. The body count of the original Sin City prevents any repetition of that film’s bold structure of interlocking stories – or at least any version that makes sense. There’s less precision in the second go-around, which devotes a good chunk of its running time to a story about vengeful vigilante Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen) being duped by his duplicitous former lover Ava (Eva Green), a sequence that drags on too long despite the latter’s fantastic green screen-chewing performance. (Green is now 2-for-2 in salvaging tardy sequels to ground-breaking graphic novel adaptations.) Miller also contributes two brand new stories to the mixed bag of a script: a good one about a cocky young gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that doubles as a fairly interesting meditation on power and those who truly wield it, and a not-so-good one about Sin City lynchpin Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) transforming herself from a pouty stripper into a pouty assassin.
It’s fortunate that A Dame to Kill For has style to burn. A prologue with the aforementioned Marv is a perfect example of what Sin City is capable of when it’s running on all cylinders: a nightmarish refraction of old school cops-and-robbers yarns with the visceral kick of modern action cinema. Unfortunately, these moments are sprinkled unevenly throughout the rest of the film. There’s also the sense that behind every kinetic action sequence or intriguing character lurks a silly plot twist or inscrutable backstory. It’s the filmmakers trying hard to make their movie feel as fresh and bold as the one that came before it. But the line between innovation and imitation is often a fine one. Sometimes the innovators themselves are the last ones to know when they’ve crossed it.